What Are They All About? St. Louis FC
A clean slate. It’s that time of year again as MLS sides enter the Lamar Hunt US Open Cup in round four. The Chicago Fire will be taking on St. Louis FC at Harlen C. Hunter Stadium this upcoming Tuesday (7:30 CT on ESPN+). The competition will serve as a welcomed break from league action where the Fire have gone four consecutive matches without a victory. Their latest result, a 2-0 loss away to reigning champions Atlanta United, left them in ninth place of the Eastern Conference despite having played more matches than most of the teams above them. A lack of creativity—with a talented attacking roster—and an uncharacteristic spell of poor finishing will leave them scratching their heads, but there is a bit of expectation and hope in the air as they chase their fifth title in one of the world’s oldest single elimination competitions.
Those same dreams of silverware are being had just a few hours down I-55 as well. St. Louis FC has had a difficult few weeks as the area suffers from continued flash floods which have left their home stadium damaged. A venue change to a local university has offered a bit of respite from a potential logistical nightmare and may perhaps also offer the potential for higher attendance as the community comes together to celebrate amidst an emotional slump. Two victories in the second and third rounds of the competition have created a bit of momentum for the side and the fervent support of the St. Louligan’s adds to their homefield advantage in this one. The competition is one where fairy tales have the opportunity to become reality and memories of the recent past will only bolster this possibility for the underdogs. Will St. Louis add another splotch-mark to Veljko Paunovic’s CV, or can the Fire take care of business in Missouri? Let’s see what’s in store for the Men in Red.
St. Louis Form Guide: L-W-D-W-D
Previous Result: A 2-1 loss away to Hartford Athletic.
Formation: 4-3-3; Fenlason; Bahner, Fink, Kavita, Gee; Umar, Hilton, Abend; Cicerone, Dikwa, Dacres
Strengths: We know that the sides are mismatched on paper, but this is a competition where such metaphorical papers are often cast aside. St. Louis has shown themselves to be one of the best sides in the USL Championship this season and if they catch the Fire on a particularly bad day, the gap may not be as wide as some think. Let’s see where the hosts might succeed.
Missing Pieces and International Math: For the first time in recent memory the Fire will have a (semi)welcome selection headache as they make their first Open Cup appearance. With a roster that includes multiple internationals in the prime of their careers comes the inevitability that they will miss matches due to call ups. Przemek Frankowski (Euro Qualifying), Aleksandar Katai (Euro Qualifying), and Francisco Calvo (Gold Cup) will all miss this encounter as they serve on national team duty. Additionally, in the last iteration of this fixture, Bastian Schweinsteiger did not even make the trip to Missouri, something which is likely this time around as well. The same may also be true of Nicolas Gaitan as he continues to recover from a hamstring strain, an injury easily re-aggravated on the turf of a college football stadium. Potentially missing five starters levels the playing field a bit in this one…
If those absences weren’t trying enough, the Open Cup also attempts to bridge certain gaps by stipulating that MLS teams may only feature five internationals in the matchday eighteen. Luckily for the Fire, green card holders are recognized as domestic players, but roster decisions still loom. With Nemanja Nikolic virtually guaranteed one of those slots, one of Diego Campos, Mo Adams, Marcelo, Raheem Edwards, David Ousted will miss the trip. It appears an already fluid backline will undergo further change.
Calm Hands and Cool Minds: This weekend was somewhat of an anomaly for St. Louis as they conceded two goals to Hartford. They’ve conceded just eight goals total on the season in eleven encounters, the best such record in the USL Championship. Additionally, with a 75% save ratio, Jake Fenlason is a standout keeper in the league. He holds the second highest clean sheet tally despite having played at least two matches less than most of his opponents. With just twenty-four saves made, among the lower quarter of the league, plaudits must also go to the back four in front of him. These stats are troubling indeed for a Chicago side that has struggled to create and finish dangerous chances of late—and that’s with a full squad…
I’ve Seen It Happen: In situations where an underdog dreams big, it helps to have some experience in the miraculous. St. Louis have just that in Kadeem Dacres. The native New Yorker was selected by the Fire in the 2014 MLS SuperDraft but was never offered a contract, instead he started his USL path in Arizona before eventually landing in Cincinnati for a few seasons. It is there that he was part of the magical 2017 US Open Cup run in which FC Cincinnati knocked out Columbus, Chicago, and Miami en route to a semifinal appearance. Dacres featured in the match against Chicago where all of the Fire’s PK takers aside from Schweinsteiger missed their spot kicks and as such is living proof that it can be done. He will look to inspire his teammates to do the unlikely.
Weaknesses: At the end of the day, this Chicago side has too much quality to be undone by a USL Championship side on the border of the playoff picture. Moreover, many of the areas where St. Louis has struggled this season play right into the hands of this Fire team. Let’s take a look.
Missing Productivity: Having a defender as your joint leading goal scorer is not ideal. That reality is only increased when you realize that tally sits firmly at three goals. Sure, center back Sam Fink should be proud of his haul on the back of wonderfully timed set piece headers, but ultimately, thirteen team goals on the season is nothing to shout about. Only Memphis and Hartford have notched fewer tallies—a reality which has fifteenth and sixteenth in the East respectively. When you dig deeper, going scoreless in league play during the month of May, a 14% conversion rate, 76 minutes per goal, and less than three shots on target per match paints a grim picture indeed.
Part of the problem for St. Louis is that they are missing an out and out playmaker. With poor passing completion in the oppositions half (just 65%) and an inability to play through balls or long balls in behind (a 45% completion rate on passes longer than ten yards), Anthony Pulis really has his work cut out for him in terms of both player acquisition and tactical approaches with the current roster. With a defensive midfielder, Lewis Hilton, registering the highest pass tally and most long pass attempts, you realize why they have an inability to find the back of the net. They seem devoid of ideas moving forward and they’re sure to be tested even more than usual against opposition that is just a cut above.
What Do You Mean Depth?: When St. Louis traveled to Connecticut this weekend, they not only took a full compliment of starters, their starting eleven was largely unchanged from previous matches when the opening whistle sounded. With a smaller budget come greater restrictions and coupled with a lack of allure that some MLS franchises may have, it is near impossible to successfully build a deep roster at the USL level. This means that while Chicago was resting, recovering, and studying film, St. Louis was on a four-hour flight with just around forty-eight hours to prepare for an already mismatched encounter. An unfamiliar stadium, their own bus ride to the suburban locale, and college turf to deal with adds to their lack of depth to remove any semblance of a home field advantage they may have had.
Prediction: A victory for the Fire is a must. Chicago 3-0 St. Louis. Nemanja Nikolic, CJ Sapong, and Djordje Mihailovic for the visitors. The result will not fix their league woes, but for a joyful few hours, they will believe in magical possibilities.